(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT).com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
When June Carter Cash died two years ago, that marked the end of the life of one of the greatest and strongest women in country music history. At the time that she died, her daughter Carlene Carter (whose father was Country Music Hall of Famer Carl Smith) was struggling to re-emerge from years of personal difficulties, after a brilliant early singing career of her own.
Now comes Carlene starring as her mother in the new musical Wildwood Flowers, which received its world premiere Wednesday night (July 13) at Nashville’s BellSouth Acuff Theatre.
The production is perhaps as valuable for its role in returning Carlene Carter to the stage as it is for serving as a much-deserved tribute to one of the more remarkable women in music history.
Wildwood Flowers depicts June’s career history from her childhood to her striking out on a solo career of her own. It begins with the travels and travails of Mother Maybelle Carter traveling and performing with her three daughters Anita, Helen and June. Maybelle, for the un-initiated, was one-third of the celebrated Carter Family, the founding family of country music. After the Carter Family’s breakup in 1943, Maybelle and her girls began touring, as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.
June had a career that should be all the more celebrated because by all rights it should not have happened. As the storyline of Wildwood Flowers makes clear, June was the musical ugly duckling in a family where musical genius flowed like spring water. And she had no natural talent. As is made apparent during the musical, Carlene is actually a better singer than was her mother (and is able to dig into June’s vocal growl and perfectly mimic her dancing). June was sandwiched between her musically gifted sisters Anita and Helen. Anita’s may well have been the greatest natural female voice in the history of country music. But June carved out a musical career of her own, and it’s fascinating to watch that history sketched on stage, as she evolves from ugly duckling to self-taught musician, sink-or-swim singer, and as a self-taught and lauded comedienne.
And that’s where Wildwood Flowers ends, as she launches her solo career, after her first two marriages and before her marriage that would endure. And before she went to New York City to study acting and come close to a serious acting career. She would soon enough give up all career thoughts to devote all of her attention to being married to Johnny Cash and all that that entailed, including being the mother to a large horde of children as well as the wife of an international star and presiding over the family’s estates in Tennessee and Jamaica.
It was a daunting childhood for Carlene, whose father, stepfather, and grandmother are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. “This is Carlene again,” she told the audience, stepping out of character after the performance of Wildwood Flowers. “This show means a lot to me and my cousin, because of our mothers and our family. Through doing this, I feel so close to my mother.”
In her epilogue, Carlene dedicated the performance to “my little sister Rose, my Wildwood Rose,” who toured with her and their parents June and Johnny and who died two years ago. “This is a song about the best days of our lives,” she said, before singing with emotion her composition about Rose, “Me and the Wildwood Rose.” This entire evening could not have been easy for Carlene, to come to grips with her family on several different levels.
It’s a very charming and folksy musical on a small scale, sprinkled with corny jokes and boasting an imaginative musical presentation that goes beyond the predictable. Performed by a very able three-piece musical ensemble, the songs range beyond the expected Carter Family works to compositions by June, by Helen and to accurate period pieces, such as “Country Girl” and “Columbus, GA” and “Cotton Fields.” The women of the cast sing marvelously. Carlene’s cousin, Lorrie Davis Bennett, seems to channel her mother Anita Carter’s powerful voice as well as her mannerisms. Gina Stewart as Mother Maybelle and Janet McMahan as Helen Carter complete a stellar vocal cast.
Carlene herself displayed considerable courage and poise in her performance. Now perhaps she’s at ease as daughter and sister and as woman on her own.